Elie Wiesel’s novel, The Sonderberg Case, moves in fits and starts between fiction and rumination rooted in Jewish theology and story-telling. At times it seems to be genuinely post-modern in its self-reflexive irony and stubborn air of mystery. The narrator is Yedidyah who writes alternately in the first and third person with no apparent justification for the switch. He’s a theater critic-- because his prospects as an actor were dim--when suddenly he’s asked to fill in for his newspaper’s court reporter. Thus he comes to the Sonderberg case in which a young man apparently has abruptly left the scene of an older man’s death in the woods...but there is no evidence as to whether the young man killed the old man by pushing him off a cliff...and when asked his plea, he answers that he is both innocent and guilty, causing the judge to record “innocent” on his behalf. Not incidentally, the two men in the woods, old and young, are German.
A puzzler? Sort of, and sort of a mishmash. The themes Wiesel appears to juggle have to do with individual versus collective guilt, the mystery of God’s purpose, and the necessity of personal memory, which, in the case of European Jews, was denied by virtue of what, in this book, is called the Tragedy, more commonly referred to as the Holocaust.
At different points in this jumpy story Yedidyah is in New York, Jerusalem, and in Eastern Europe seeking the Christian woman who saved him from the death camps that consumed the rest of his family. The real conflict, however, seems to be between carrying the story through, on its own terms, and making it fuzzy with opaque rabbinical sayings and fables. Yedidayah is troubled, this we know. The young German turns out to be innocent, as we suspect. The essence of life, we learn, is living it deeply moment by moment, which means that happiness is a species of travail, because the more successful you are in life, the deeper you probe its incontestable mysteries, what ifs, and serendipities, sometimes pleasing, sometimes tragic.
The fun of the book lies in its lively voice, no matter whether in the first or third person, and its sudden hopeful leaps, albeit ultimately deeper into disappointment. The book’s deficiency is something I allude to above: anecdotes seldom are fully developed, characters seldom are fully developed, even the Sonderberg case itself is a sketch pad on which its details are overwhelmed by historical events and allusions that overshadow the text itself.
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